Jackson has had this playground to itself for 4 seasons now, but this is the year they get a serious challenge - maybe 2. Nashville has gone from 59 wins to 88 wins in 2 seasons...can they take the next step? New Orleans improved by 13 wins and got to the NLCS...can their oddball pitching staff work? Will Florida continue to muddle along, or are they this year's big surprise? ALL...and more...answered below...
Season 29: 97-65, won Division, reached ALDS & lost to Las Vegas
"Breakthrough" Means: Finding a way to beat the Desperados in the playoffs. They've won the Division 4 straight years, and lost to Vegas in the 2nd round in 3 of those (lost to Vancouver in Round 2 the other time). With 97 wins last year, they're knocking on the door of becoming an elite team.
To Do That They Have To: 1) Get on base better - even though they hit more HR's last year than in Sea 28, their OBP was 20 points lower - and they scored 100 fewer runs. New LF Palmer and new co-catcher Julio will help.
2) Find another SP and another RP (maybe on staff, maybe elsewhere) who they can count on to shut down a potent offense (easier said than done against LV, I know). As good as their pitching was last year (3.68 ERA, 3rd), Springer (11-10, 2.27) was the only "lock-down".
Maybe Ethier (12-8, 3.42) emerges, maybe Baek becomes a dominant closer, and maybe they swing a blockbuster deadline trade.
This Team Is Built On: 1) Power at all 9 positions - yep, they had 9 players hit 20+ HR's last year, and 7 (C Ward, 2B Clancy, DH Valenzuela, 1B Rosado, SS Ross, CF Hull, 3B Hardy) are back;
2) Deep pitching staff - they spread the innings around (nobody had 200 IP) - but they still need to get their 180 from Springer.
Player to Watch: New LF Palmer. If he gets on base at his career .360 rate, the offense will party like it's Season 28 (891 runs) again.
Free Agent Signings:
OF Michael Palmer, RP Zeus Quinn, RP Kazuhiro Jiang, C Alejandro Valenzuela, C Orlando Julio
New Orleans Big Test Icicles
Season 29: 89-73, Wild Card, reached ALCS & lost to Las Vegas
"Breakthrough" Means: Last year's playoff run was a fluke - the real breakthrough is overtaking Jackson for the Division.
To Do That They Have To: Pitch a lot better - their 4.59 ERA won't cut it. They experimented with a relief-dominant staff last year - it worked a lot better in the playoffs - and seem set to implement it full-time this year.
They've rebooted with Ramiro Lira on the front end, Louie Lee on the back end, and certainly expect better than a 5.46 ERA from Aurelio Duran.
This Team Is Built On: 1) Relief pitching: Lee, Duran, Albert Gonzalez, Benny Marquez, Jeremi Wilkerson;
2) Getting on base - they'll rely on 1-2-3 hitters Kawasaki, Johnson, Green to reach base like dead Chicago voters - early and often.
Player to Watch: Sam Stock will get the Game 20 call-up; they'll need him to erase a couple of middle innings most nights for this deal to work.
traded ML SS Bartolo Perez for MiL 1B Nicholas Wilkins
traded ML IF/CF Bobby Michaels for ML SP Ramiro Lira
traded MiL SS Derek Cammack for ML DH Vicente Rodriguez + $4.5MM
traded MiL OF Yoslan Goya and MiL SP Darwin Thornburg for ML CF Harry Johnson, ML OF Ernest Stynes, ML RP Louie Lee and MiL P Emil Ontiveros
traded ML CF Ezequiel Neruda for MiL IF/CF Matt Hunter
traded ML SP Ramiro Lira for ML RP Wil Gray and ML SP Oswaldo Beltre
Free Agent Signings
SP Brian Verlander, SP Vasco Gonzalez
Season 29: 88-74, Wild Card, lost AL Play-In to Jackson
"Breakthrough" Means: After 5 straight Division Crowns (Seasons 21-25) they retooled for only 1 year, then improved by 12 and 19 wins the next 2 seasons, getting back to the playoffs last year. Breakthrough is nothing less than winning the Division.
To Do That They Have To: Tighten up that defense. 107 errors was 5th-most in the AL, and their "net + 5 plays" (45/40 +/-) was way down the list. That put pressure on a good (772 runs - 6th) offense and a pitching staff that was decent (4.15) ERA but certainly didn't need the extra baserunners.
Thing is, I'm not sure how they'd do it. 3B Jim Salazar had 20 errors, but also contributed 19 HR's (and only had 2 bad plays). 2B Dude Malloy had 16 errors, but that was by far the most he's ever committed in a pro season. 1B Jamie Osborne (.305/32/98) and LF Eswalin Sanches (.288/33/103) each had 7 bad plays, but that seems a small price to pay for the offense they generate.
They might have to live with the defense they have.
This Team Is Built On: A little of everything except walks (16th in AL) and defense.
They hit the long ball (Sanches 33, Osborne 32, Hillenbrand hit 42 total for 2 teams), they run a little (SS Paniagua 32 SB's, 2B Malloy 23 SB's), they have a dominant #1 SP (Nelson Jordan - 19-9, 3.22) and a shutdown closer (Wilkin Rios - 30-of-31 in save opportunities).
Player to Watch: LF Kevin Hillenbrand OPS'd 1.032 in 43 games after coming over in a trade from Cheyenne; if he can keep it up he'll make the MVP Ballot.
Free Agent Signings
RP John Reed
Season 29: 69-93
"Breakthrough" Means: With 5 straight seasons with 60-something wins and 3 division-mates at 88+ last year, the TIGERS are in danger of being irrelevant. They need to jump up into the 80-something win range and challenge somebody for 2nd or 3rd.
To Do That They Have To: Figure out how to upgrade a bunch of positions at once without breaking the bank. Don't know if they managed a bunch this year, but they're accelerating.
3B Charles Forrest (.265/32/79) is nice offensive improvement over Matt Brown (.248/22/68); he won't win a Gold Glove but won't be the defensive disaster Brown was (38 errors and bad plays in 123 games started).
Season 27's first-rounder, SP Andre Counsel, got his feet wet last year and should improve. Ratings-wise, he looks a lot like last year's breakout rookie, Wily Osoria (7-6, 2.92 in 132 P) - let's hope his stats start to look like Wily's.
FA Barry Tobin may actually complete the formation of a late-inning trio (with Paulino - 3 wins, 5 saves, 2.98 and Sinclair - 5 wins, 28 saves, 3.62) that can win some games for them.
This Team Is Built On: Hard to say...they really haven't forged a personality yet. If Osoria can continue his success and Counsel can start hitting his potential, maybe they'll be the "Attack Of The Killer Lefties" (just checking to see if anyone here is old enough to get the reference to "Attack Of The Killer Tomatoes").
Player to Watch: Counsel's the most interesting player, but the key guy may be Brian Iorg. He's been throwing 200 innings (pretty effectively) every year on bad teams, but has good enough stuff to pop out a very good year.
Free Agent Signings
RP Barry Tobin, 3B Charles Forest, SP Elmer O'Brien
SP Andre Counsel (Sea 27 #4)
Division Outlook and Prediction:
Tough call, but I'm not taking the conservative path and picking the incumbent. Jackson could well win more than last year's 97 - Palmer in LF is going to be a significant + for their offense. But I think my BTI's will overhaul Jackson this year in a close race. New Orleans' pitching is going to be much improved, and they add Johnson, Kawasaki, Stynes and V. Rodriguez to last year's 3rd-best offense. It wouldn't be a big surprise to me if Nashville jumped up and took the division, but they're more likely to level out at 85-90 wins. There are always some teams that surprise with how much they improve, and Florida could be one of those this year. They've got just enough young talent now, and just enough veteran talent, to break out of that 60-something wins funk.
New Orleans 95-67